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Unraveling the Mystery of Electrolytes

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You can’t look at a nutrition display without seeing ‘with electrolytes’ on the majority of the packaging. As athletes, we all have a vague awareness that electrolytes are important, but we may not have an understanding of how they impact us.

To help us out, we again turned to Ilana Katz, MS, RD, CSSD of Optimal Nutrition for Life, to give us an understanding of what electrolytes are, how to make sure we maintain proper balance and what to do to prepare for a big training session or race.

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are electrically charged particles (ions) that regulate body fluid and tissue such as blood, cells, interstitial tissue (between cells, etc. ), helping to control blood pH, electrical charge to create muscle contraction, therefore movement and heartbeat. Every sequence of human function is regulated by electrolytes and without them, humans would not exist. So from an athletic viewpoint, electrolytes are involved in basic cell function to complex neuromuscular interactions needed for athletic performance.


When we are talking about performance, the electrolytes that we want to focus on are sodium (Na), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) because of their functions in:

  • Temperature control
  • Hydration
  • Respiratory rate
  • Digestion (sports nutrition)
  • Neurological
  • Heartbeats
  • Energy production (glucose metabolism)

Other functions of electrolytes are more general but may translate to performance as well. These include:

  • Renal Function (bladder control)
  • Memory
  • All of the senses
  • Information gathering
  • Transporting messages to the brain and muscles.

Often endurance athletes will be focused on their sodium intake because of the role it plays in hydration but several other electrolytes are important to pay attention to. Calcium's main role is in muscle contraction. Magnesium's main role is cell function and Potassium’s main role is to regulate pH balance.

Electrolyte discussion in athletics is more than Sodium alone (we often get caught up with sodium because of its role in hydration)

Just like hydration, athletes can’t maintain electrolyte balance by just focusing on it the day of a big training session or race. Day to day awareness is vital for athletes.

Electrolyte Loss

Perspiration is the main cause of electrolyte imbalance. You may also notice a loss of electrolytes after a bout of the stomach flu or any other illness that causes ‘issues’ with your digestive system.

Physiological adaptation in well-trained athletes helps to decrease electrolyte loss because they have more diluted perspiration. However, athletes must still replace electrolytes when sweating (or otherwise).


Practice good nutrition and hydration

Typically a nutritious diet and well-maintained hydration schedule will keep your electrolytes in balance.


Water in our system serves as a conductor, allowing the ions that electrolytes break down into move across membranes and carry fluid, nutrients and waste. They also trigger nerve impulses which will result in muscle function and neutralize lactic acid as well as other acids in the blood. Physical activity may shift the electrolyte balance, first by increasing the concentration of electrolytes and then over time depleting them. This makes a focus on hydration and electrolytes vital for athletes. Depletion will reduce performance and could lead to serious illness.  A diet that includes 4 to 6 grams of sodium and 2 to 6 gram of potassium each day can help maintain electrolyte balance


Pre-Training or Racing

If you are training in hot weather, in cold weather where you’ll be wearing heavy layers, tend to perspire heavily or plan to train for an extended period of time, you’ll want to prepare by consuming an electrolyte enhanced drink an hour before training and then every 10-20 minutes during a training session. The same goes for race day. Don’t overlook electrolyte intake during swim sessions. Athletes don’t realize that they will sweat in the pool or especially in a wetsuit.


Post-Training or Racing

Although an ice cold sports drink may sound delicious after a tough training session or race, alone, it’s not actually the best way to replace electrolytes. Most sports drinks are heavy on Sodium but are light or missing other key electrolytes. Supplement your sports drink by grabbing a banana to help replace some of those key electrolytes. Other foods high in potassium include potato, sweet potato, dried apricots, and avocado. Ilana recommends making a recovery smoothie if appropriate, that way you can include calcium and magnesium from your protein source (whey, milk, yogurt), potassium from your fruit, even throw in some avocado.   


As an athlete, focusing daily on hydration and electrolyte balance will directly affect your training and racing. If you need help finding the right electrolyte supplement for your training and racing, stop by the store or give us a call. We’re happy to help.

 

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